The men behind the armed takeover of a government-owned wildlife refuge claim the federal land rightfully belongs to them — with “them” being the mostly white population of eastern Oregon. However, before Harney County became a white settlement, it was largely a Paiute Indian territory.
Leaders of the Burns Paiute Indian tribe, the natives who consider Oregon nature preserve as sacred, have added their voice to the on-going militia standoff in their region. Not only have they called for the militia to vacate Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, they have also demanded that the protesters leave their land.
In a press conference on Wednesday, the tribal council recalled their painful history with white settlers and the conflict with the United States government. As it turns out, in the late 1800s the authorities forced the native men off the reservation. However, some of them later returned and purchased property in the area.
“The protesters have no right to this land. It belongs to the native people who live here,” said Charlotte Rodrique, the tribal leader. “They are desecrating one of our sacred traditional cultural properties. They are endangering our children and the safety of our community.”
Ammon Bundy — the rancher leading the self-styled militia — demands the land be handed over to locals, which reportedly made Rodrique laugh because she knew Bundy was not talking about giving the land back to its rightful owners.
“We don't have big 30-person hunting parties coming in and camping and killing all the elk,” she added. “We're losing our tradition, our cultural way of life ... because of the infringement of these ranchers.”
The group of 20 or so militants seized the wildlife headquarters on Saturday. Initially, the occupation got little to no coverage from mainstream media or any concrete response from the U.S. authorities. However, as the blatant hypocrisy gained traction on social media, various news publications began to pick it up.
Diana Dick, a tribe member whose husband is on the Paiute council, said “all lands have been stolen from the Indian tribes,” adding that the occupiers “never mentioned one thing about Indians” while laying claims about the conflicted land.
Although the tribal council is reportedly so far pleased with the government's response, some of them are rightfully wondering if the response would have been the same had the militants been non-white.
“As a Native, if we were to go out there and fight back like they are, we would have been dead by now,” said Carla Teeman, a social services assistant at the tribe.
If the past events serve any indication, the official response would not have been this passive if the protesters were black, Muslims or the Native Americans. But since the government has finally regarded the situation a matter worth looking into, it’s all good, right?